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Les Sources de Caudalie in Bordeaux
I’ve got a problem. And it’s not going away.
As a travel lover and writer, I am constantly dreaming of the next new place to go. Judy, my wife and travel partner of over half my life, has other needs.
Judy puts in 60-hour weeks at her job. A perfect getaway for her is to stretch out next to a pool in some romantic, warm, blue sky locale…and unwind.
I’m all about: “Hurry up and throw your suitcase in the car and let’s get rolling.” Judy’s response: “Cool your jets, Mortie. Let’s just stay here for a few more days.”
Like most good partnerships, while no one is 100 percent happy with compromise, we find a middle ground. On our recent two weeks in France, we struck a perfect chord. We went west to the sea. We sliced off one small sliver of France — the Atlantique seaboard from the beach resort town of La Baule below Brittany to the casino resort town of Biarritz at the Spanish border. We covered 260 miles in the most relaxed 13 days of sweet discovery we’ve had for a long time.
There is something about the pace of France, especially when we keep distant from any city large enough to enforce parking meters. That feeds our souls. Is it the pain o’chocolate with our morning coffee? Or gliding through an unoccupied roundabout in our rental car instead of dealing with stoplights or stop signs? Or enjoying a two-hour lunch or a three-hour dinner where the wait staff knows enough not to bring your bill until you request it? Or riding a bike through vineyards in hopes that you’ll get lost? It’s all good.
On this most recent Labor Day visit, we found everything loveable about France distilled into one amazing resort. As evidence that we were not beguiled or drunk on romantic sentiment, the Bordeaux-based vineyard resort of Les Sources de Caudalie was chosen “Hotel of the Year” among its more than 400 hotel members by the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World this past spring.
Over the past five years, the Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SMH) organization has drawn abreast of the Paris-based Relais & Chateaux as two world-wide organizations that represent the very highest quality independent, unique lodging and dining experiences in the world. The Bellevue Club and Seattle’s new Hotel Andra have been invited to join the SLH team. In British Columbia, Hastings House on Salt Spring Island and Brentwood Bay Lodge and Spa on Vancouver Island are members. Among the SLH California members, Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur, Hotel Parisi in La Jolla and The Huntington Hotel & Nob Hill Spa atop the California Street cable-car route in San Francisco lead a list of pricey yet worth-it lodges.
This past year, Les Sources de Caudalie was chosen the best of the best.
A short history helps explain this remarkable nine-year-old resort in Bordeaux. In 1990 husband and wife business superstars Florence and Daniel Cathiard identified a vineyard with a significant house as they flew over Pessac Leognan, about 12 miles due south of Bordeaux. Looking for their next adventure, the Cathiards decided to sell their grocery store chain and their collection of “Go Sport” athletic goods superstores and become vintners. Florence, at the same time, left her 20-year career in public relations and advertising as a vice president of McCann Erickson Europe and determined to employ her talents in the wine business. And much more, as you will see.
In 1993 the Cathiards’ eldest daughter, Mathilde, and her husband, Bertrand, were helping with the grape harvest at the Cathiards’ historic Smith Haut Lafitte vineyard when they met another visitor to the estate, the chief of the Bordeaux Pharmacognosy Laboratory. Upon seeing piles of skins and seeds about to be discarded, the chemist explained to the Cathiards that the heaps of “waste” were in fact one of nature’s finest polyphenols, which actually was more effective in retarding free radicals which age human skin than even vitamin E. He suggested that they were throwing the best part of the grape away. The Cathiards, always entrepreneurs, saw an opportunity.
Taking the discovery of anti-aging within the detritus of grapes to a logical conclusion, Mathilde and Bertrand started the Paris-based cosmetics firm Caudalie, which is a French wine term meaning the length the taste of wine remains on the palate. Today, Caudalie products are sold in many of the most exclusive stores in the world.
Incidentally, if having an Anglo-Saxon name like “Smith” associated with historic vineyard properties such as “Haut Lafitte” seems like an oxymoron, then you’re with me. History buffs may recall that Eleanor of Aquitaine married the king of England and cemented a long-standing relationship between the British Isles and this region of France. Mr. Smith, a Scot, acquired the Haut Lafitte property in the 18th Century and added his name to the enterprise. So common was British interests in Bordeaux that I even encountered, and acquired, a fine bottle of Chateau Morton — I kid you not!
Another fortuitous discovery happened as a result of the Cathiards’ disappointment with the grape quality in one low-lying area on the estate. A water diviner predicted an underground spring was the cause, and exploration uncovered a natural mineral hot springs 1,700 feet beneath the rows of underperforming vines. Drilling brought the thermal waters to the surface and inspired the world’s first Vinotherapie Spa.
Alice, the Cathiards’ youngest daughter, loved working with her mother to restore the ancient winery and its “Sleeping Beauty” chateaux. Once the vineyard estate was completed, she set off to create the initial 29 rooms of Les Sources de Caudalie Resort and Spa. Alice has an ingenious eye for decorating. Each room is tastefully and uniquely done, creating a most inviting and relaxed environment, at once artistic yet unpretentious. The common hallways, foyers, reading rooms and lounges glow with the most unusual decorating touches. In our “boathouse” collection of 14 rooms, the lounge and hallway featured both a highly polished antique wood rowboat and an equally restored competitive racing shell that looked like it competed at the 1920 Olympics. Guys who like “guy stuff,” as I do, would love the nautical touches, and I also enjoyed the perfectly cared-for display of hand tools handed down from generations that never knew an electric hand drill.
After helping create this marvelous inn and after two years developing the American market for Caudalie cosmetics, Alice returned to Bordeaux, took a degree from the University’s business school and married fellow business student Jerome Tourbier. Today Alice and Jerome manage Les Sources de Caudalie, when not attending to the whims of their 1-month-old son, Emile.
With that as a background, I was awakened my first morning at “Les Sources” by Judy’s exclamation, “Bill, there’s an all-white peacock on our veranda.” Within minutes a male peacock in full green and violet regalia had joined the white one. While showering, we wondered if every guest at “Les Sources” gets a peacock for the morning. Each of the 49 rooms are extra large and the bathrooms expansive, very unusual for historic European properties. Built-in TVs, closets, safes, writing desks, the works…but peacocks too?
As we strolled from our room in the “boathouse” en route to the sun-splashed, glass enclosed breakfast room, two elegant resident swans floated our way on the central pond in hopes we might share a croissant with them. I promised I would return after breakfast. The breakfast buffet included an impressive variety of cheeses, a rainbow of fruits and juices, cold cut meats and lox, yogurts and cereals, and endless breads and pastries, and yes, always coffees.
After breakfast, a bike ride was called for. Complimentary bikes and protective headgear awaited as did the property’s collection of more than 20 pieces of statuary metal art by top French and European artists. Across the way, we pedaled to the “Sleeping Beauty” home of Smith Haut Lafitte winery, and watched their full-time cooper setting afire to his latest stock of just-made oak wine barrels in order to achieve the perfect charcoal interiors of proper aging. The aroma was divine.
After working up a minor biking lather, we headed to the pool and outdoor hot tub (in huge oak wine barrels, of course), and to the indoor spa arena where treatments involving grape seed and skins were making what must have been France’s most gorgeous models look even lovelier. It was enough to make me want lunch.
Mid-day dining was served in the country-inn inspired La Table de Lavoir. The room’s gigantic century-old beams and ancient fireplace stones belied the newness and freshness of the room, setting a tone for indolent tastes and engagement.
After lunch, Judy and I tried out the three-hole executive golf course. By keeping distant from a menacing water hazard, we negotiated the course successfully and followed it up with a victory swim and more sun time. Later, a bit before dinner, we walked over to the Smith Haut Lafitte winery for a special tour of the two new underground cellars where the Cathiards throw black tie events for the Bordeaux wine establishment and perhaps some heads of state.
Dinners are served in the more formal 5-7 course La Grand’Vigre dining room where all of France’s culinary magic is on display. Figure around 120 euros ($170) per person, not including wine. Or one can enjoy the dinner menu at the less formal La Table de Lavoir.
One final comment: Touring the centuries-old Bordeaux wine estates is a different game entirely than touring in Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, or the wine chateaux of the Loire. Bordeaux’s great estates’ wines are committed and sold a year or two before they are bottled. The vineyards of Bordeaux, therefore, are not open for drop-in tours. Reservations for touring must be made well in advance and not every request for a tour is granted. With that in mind, the best way for a true wine lover to discover and savor the secrets of this most regarded of French wine appellations is to reserve a room for several nights at Les Sources de Caudalie, with complimentary wine tours guaranteed.
We flew from Seattle to Paris on American Airlines at a price less than that quoted me for the new direct Air France route to Paris. Besides saving the money, I must admit I liked the stop in Chicago going over, and our return stopped in New York at JFK. Both had quite nice and uncrowded passenger terminal areas for stretching our legs, and both had new refurbished and impressive Admirals Club lounges.
If you are a fan of architecture and art, and you find Bordeaux and Biarritz on your itinerary, you should plan to visit the famous Guggenheim European Museum designed by Frank Geary. The titanium skin of the museum in which there are no right angles anywhere in the project, inside or out, is thought to be the most influential architectural structure of the past 50 years.
Bordeaux sits two hours by super fast auto route from the Spanish border, and Bilbao is slightly less than two hours into France. Bilbao was chosen as the sight for the Guggenheim because the Foundation wanted to place the Museum in one of Europe’s “secondary cities” and because the Basque nation made a very strong appeal based on the fact that the historical Bilbao’s steel-making industry was near death and unemployment was very high in that region.
The work of Frank Geary has rekindled a minor artistic renaissance in this Basque region, and other highly regarded architects have added to Bilbao’s landscape with significant work such as the new airport. Bilbao’s derelict riverfront has spiffed up in the 10 years of the museum and slowly the grim, water and air pollution and graffiti are disappearing.
The architecture and museum is certainly worth the trip to Bilbao. We stayed one night in the Hotel Lopez Del Haro, well-situated an easy ten-minute walk from the museum. The Hotel rooms start around 100 euros, and the property itself offers a historic fa